What Should I Know about Guardianships?

Guardianships – also known as conservatorships – are drastic and invasive. They strip away control adults otherwise exercise over their own lives and establish someone else as the decision-maker.  They require a rigorous showing of legal incapacity and approval by a judge. In many jurisdictions, parties must establish a specific need for guardianship and demonstrate that other alternatives considered would not adequately protect the individual.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First” says that guardianships should never be undertaken lightly. Once established, they can be extremely difficult to undo. Therefore, other options should always be considered first.

Guardianships ensure that those who are unable to handle their own affairs aren’t exploited or injured. There are circumstances when a guardianship may be the best – or only – choice. For example, an elderly gentleman with dementia may have lacked the planning to make adequate provisions in his will or trust for management of his affairs. Without a plan for oversight of his assets, he could end up jeopardizing the estate he intended to pass on to his family. In that case, the heirs may look to have a court-appointed guardian appointed who will ensure that their father or grandfather doesn’t sign away his estate or compromise his physical well-being.

Transparency is important. Before it becomes necessary for a guardian to be appointed to handle your physical or financial decisions, consider whom you’d trust to act in that capacity and put it in writing.

It also informs others that, if a guardian is needed, this person is the one you’d like to see serve in that capacity.

A one-page directive will make your wishes clear and keep this important decision from a judge who will know nothing about you or your priorities or your specific circumstances.

In addition, you should delegate a second person now to support you in the future. It’s preferable that this is someone younger whom you trust. This individual will bring a fresh perspective to the situation. They should also possess a sound understanding of money management.

If you don’t consider these things now, the state will make the decision for you after you no longer can make such decisions for yourself.

Talk with an experienced elder law attorney and create the documents now that will save your loved ones from having to seek guardianship for you in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 7, 2022) “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First”

Understanding the Issues of Elder Law

The legal needs of many older Americans go beyond basic legal services. They are also all intertwined. In addition to understanding the legal issues and complications that older Americans face, elder law attorneys must also understand the surrounding personal concerns of their clients, such as health, financial and family issues, and how those affect their clients’ legal issues.

Recently Heard’s article entitled “What You Need to Know About Elder Law” explains that other specific areas of expertise include the following:

  • End of life planning could extend to planning your health care support system as you age, signing a power of attorney, establishing a living will and other issues surrounding end of life care.
  • Financial issues frequently entails questions about retirement and financial planning, housing financing, income and estate tax planning and gift tax issues.
  • Long term care can include planning for asset protection, insurance for in-home care or assistance with activities of daily living, Medicare planning, insurance, veterans’ benefits and other issues.
  • Residents’ rights issues may include claims or complaints you bring while a patient in a nursing home or long term care facility.
  • Workplace discrimination issues stem, from the fact that older Americans sometimes face age and disability discrimination in the workplace.
  • Guardianship issues might include guardianship avoidance, planning wills and trusts, planning for the future of a special needs child, probate court and other issues surrounding minor or adult children.
  • Landlord-tenant law may mean handling disputes with landlords, contesting an eviction, dealing with foreclosure issues, rent increases and more.
  • Abuse, neglect, and fraud. These elder law attorneys specialize in cases where an older client is being victimized.

An elder law attorney can be a great partner for you as you plan out the legal and financial aspects of the next stage of your life-or the life of a loved one. Speak to one today.

Reference: Recently Heard (June 23, 2022) “What You Need to Know About Elder Law”

What Is a Guardianship?

The guardianship process is started by a petition being filed with the court. For a person to be deemed incapacitated by the court, the petitioner must provide medical evidence of the individual’s incapacity.

The Phoenix Reporter’s recent article entitled “What is a guardianship?” explains that to be found incapacitated, the court must determine that the individual’s ability to receive and evaluate information effectively, and to communicate decisions, is impaired to such a level that he or she is partially or totally unable to manage his financial resources or to meet the essential requirements for his physical health and safety.

After the petition is filed, the individual alleged to be incapacitated must be given written notice of the action and told of their right to counsel. A formal hearing is held, and the alleged incapacitated person has a right to be at the hearing and is typically required to be at the hearing (unless a physician excuses him or her because their welfare could be harmed by attending). During the hearing, evidence is presented to demonstrate that the person is incapacitated, that the guardianship is necessary and that there’s not a less restrictive alternative. The court will render a decision on whether the appointment of the guardian is necessary and, if appropriate, will adjudicate the individual an incapacitated person. The guardian is then empowered to make decisions regarding the incapacitated person’s care and financial management.

The court can decide to appoint a guardian of the person and/or a guardian of the estate. The guardian of the person makes decisions on where the individual will live, his or her safety and physical wellbeing, along with his or her daily health care. In contrast, the guardian of the estate manages the finances and property of the person.

Any qualified individual, corporate fiduciary, non-profit corporation, or county agency may serve as guardian. The guardian has ongoing oversight by the court and must file annual reports. However, when first appointed as the guardian of the estate, he or she must file an inventory of the incapacitated person’s assets.

A guardianship should be a last resort and only used where necessary and where there are no less restrictive alternatives. Most guardianships can be avoided with proper estate planning.

A guardianship is a more restrictive tool in dealing with incapacity than a power of attorney. A power of attorney gives you more flexibility, and there’s usually no involvement by the court. A durable power of attorney is one of the most important estate planning documents you can have and can prevent the need for a guardianship in the event of incapacity. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney for assistance.

Reference: The Phoenix Reporter (Sep. 1, 2021) “What is a guardianship?”

I’ve Been Appointed My Aging Parents’ Power of Attorney but What Now?

A durable power of attorney is frequently signed by aging parents. However, sometimes the elderly can misunderstand exactly what that entails, especially when it comes to the authority of the person given decision-making powers.

The person appointed (called the agent or attorney-in-fact) is also typically an adult child. Nevertheless, he or she may be unaware of the appointment or does not grasp what is permitted and when it is permitted. It can be very confusing.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Let’s Get Clear: What Does It Mean To Be Appointed Aging Parents’ Power Of Attorney?” provides the answers to three frequently asked questions of many heard from families.

Question: Can my father, who’s in charge of our family finances but now has dementia, revoke his DPOA that he signed years ago and name a child to take over managing his money when he needs help?

Answer: Perhaps. If Dad has dementia, he needs to be evaluated by a doctor to see if he still has the capacity to make financial decisions. This is a legal determination with help from doctors and particularly psychologists, who can perform the evaluation and give standardized test results. If the parent is found to have financial capacity, he is permitted to revoke the durable power of attorney at any time. However, if he doesn’t have mental capacity, he’s no longer legally capable of revoking the document.

Question: What if my mother is found to be incapacitated for financial decisions? If I’m the appointed agent on the DPOA, when can I use this authority?

Answer: Provided you’ve met any requirements detailed in the DPOA document itself, you can immediately take over financial authority. Some durable power of attorney documents require that a doctor or even two doctors must say the parent no longer has capacity before you can act. Some durable powers of attorney say the document is effective immediately. The agent’s authority is contained in the document.

Question: Am I allowed to keep my father from recklessly giving away money or making imprudent decisions with his wealth, if I’m the appointed agent on his DPOA?

Answer: Yes. Usually, the durable power of attorney gives the agent full authority over all financial matters.

Reference: Forbes (June 22, 2021) “Let’s Get Clear: What Does It Mean To Be Appointed Aging Parents’ Power Of Attorney?”

What’s a Living Will?

Living wills can be used to detail the type of healthcare you do or don’t want to receive in end-of-life situations or if you become permanently incapacitated or unconscious. A living will tells your healthcare providers and your family what type of care you prefer in these situations, explains Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How to Make a Living Will.” These instructions may address topics, such as resuscitation, life support and pain management. If you don’t want to be on life support in a vegetative state, you can state that in your living will.

A living will can be part of an advance healthcare directive that also includes a healthcare power of attorney. This lets your chosen healthcare proxy make medical decisions on your behalf, when you’re unable. A living will typically only applies to situations where you’re close to death or you’re permanently incapacitated; an advance directive can cover temporary incapacitation.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney or elder care lawyer about the technical aspects of how to make a living will. You should consider what to include. Every state is different, so your attorney will help you with the specifics. However,  you’ll generally need to leave instructions on the following:

  • Life-prolonging care, like blood transfusions, resuscitation, or use of a respirator;
  • Intravenous feeding if you are incapacitated and cannot feed yourself; and
  • Palliative care can be used to manage pain, if you decide to stop other treatments.

You will want to be as thorough and specific as possible with your wishes, so there is no confusion or stress for your family when or if the day arrives. You next want to communicate these wishes to your loved ones. You should also give copies of your living will to your doctor. If you’re drafting a living will as part of an advance healthcare directive, be certain that you get a copy to your healthcare proxy.

Review your living well regularly to make sure it’s still accurate because you may change your mind about the type of care you’d like to receive.

Ask your attorney to help you draft a living will along with a healthcare power of attorney, so all of the bases are covered as far as healthcare decision-making. When choosing a healthcare proxy, select a person on whom you can rely, to execute your wishes.

A living will can be an important component of an estate plan and preparing your family for your death.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 18, 2021) “How to Make a Living Will”

Get Estate Plan in Order, If Spouse Is Dying from a Terminal Illness

Thousands of people are still dying from COVID-19 complications every day, and others are dealing with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, heart attack and stroke. If your spouse is ill, the pain is intensified by the anticipated loss of your life partner.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now,” says that it’s frequently the attending physician who suggests that your spouse get his affairs in order.

Your spouse’s current prognosis and whether he or she’s at home or in a hospital will determine whether updates can be made to your estate plan. If it has been some time since the two of you last updated your estate plan, you should review the planning with your elder law attorney or estate planning attorney to be certain that you understand it and to see if there are any changes that can and should be made. There are five issues on which to focus your attention:

A Fiduciary Review. See who’s named in your estate planning documents to serve as executor and trustee of your spouse’s estate. They will have important roles after your spouse dies. Be sure you are comfortable with the selected fiduciaries, and they’re still a good fit. If your spouse has been sick, you’ve likely reviewed his or her health care proxy and power of attorney. If not, see who’s named in those documents as well.

An Asset Analysis. Determine the effect on your assets when your partner dies. Get an updated list of all your assets and see if there are assets that are held jointly which will automatically pass to you on your spouse’s death or if there are assets in your spouse’s name alone with no transfer on death beneficiary provided. See if any assets have been transferred to a trust. These answers will determine how easily you can access the assets after your spouse’s passing.

A Trust Assessment. Any assets that are currently in a trust or will pass into a trust at death will be controlled by the trust document. See who the beneficiaries are, how distributions are made and who will control the assets.

Probate Prep. If there’s property solely in your spouse’s name with no transfer on death beneficiary, those assets will pass according to his or her will. Review the will to make sure you understand it and whether probate will be needed to settle the estate.

Beneficiary Designation Check. Make certain that beneficiaries of your retirement accounts and life insurance policies are current.

If changes need to be made, an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney can counsel you on how to best do this.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now”

How to Plan for Spouse’s Medicaid

Medicaid eligibility is based on income. This means that there are restrictions on the resources—both income and assets—that you can have when you apply.

The Times Herald’s recent article entitled “Medicaid planning for a spouse” says that one of the toughest requirements for Medicaid to grasp is the financial eligibility. These rules for the cost of long-term care are tricky, especially when the Medicaid applicant is married.

To be eligible for Medicaid for long-term care, an applicant generally cannot have more than $2,400 in countable assets in their name, if their gross monthly income is $2,382 (which is the 2021 income limit) or more. An applicant may have no more than $8,000 in countable assets, if their gross monthly income is less than $2,382 (2021 income limit).

However, federal law says that certain protections are designed to prevent a spouse from becoming impoverished when their spouse goes into a nursing home and applies for Medicaid. In 2021, the spouse of a Medicaid recipient living in a nursing home—known as “the community spouse”—can keep up to $126,420 (which is the maximum Community Spouse Resource Allowance “CSRA”) and a minimum of $26,076 (the minimum CSRA) without placing the Medicaid eligibility of the spouse who is receiving long-term care in jeopardy.

The calculation to determine the amount of the CSRA, the countable assets of both the community spouse and the spouse in the nursing home are totaled on the date of the nursing home admission. That is known as the “snapshot” date. The community spouse is entitled to retain 50% of the couple’s total countable assets up to a max. The rest must be “spent-down” to qualify for the program.

In addition to the CSRA, there are also federal rules concerning income for the spouse. In many states, the community spouse can keep all of his or her own income no matter how much it is. If the community spouse’s income is less than the amount set by the state as the minimum needed to live on (“the Minimum Monthly Maintenance Needs Allowance” or “MMMNA”), then some of the applicant spouse’s income can also be allocated to the community spouse to make up the difference (called “the Spousal Allowance”). These rules are pretty complex, so speak with an experienced elder law attorney.

Reference: The Times Herald (Jan. 8, 2021) “Medicaid planning for a spouse”

What Changes Have Been Made to Protect Senior Investors?

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or “FINRA,” is a private corporation that acts as a self-regulatory organization of investment brokers and investment firms.

Its rules and guidance are designed to protect investors and to “ensure the integrity of today’s rapidly evolving market.”

The new FINRA Sanction Guidelines now expressly contemplate “whether the customer is age 65 or older” and “whether the respondent exercised undue influence over the customer and whether the customer had a mental or physical impairment that renders the person unable to protect his or her own interests”.

The National Law Review’s recent article entitled “National Adjudicatory Council Revises FINRA Sanction Guidelines” reports that FINRA Regulatory Notice 20-37 states the revised Sanction Guidelines that became effective Oct. 20, 2020.

In the revised Sanction Guidelines, FINRA and the NAC now directly discuss the issue of potential senior investor abuse. They also have revised the Sanction Guidelines to be consistent with FINRA Rule 2165 – Financial Exploitation of Specified Adults.

Further, FINRA asserts that “as with other considerations in the Sanction Guidelines, adjudicators should take a principles-based approach to assessing if the rule violations have more impact on elderly or impaired customers, including the customer’s ability to recover from sustaining financial losses.”

Moreover, FINRA states that these revisions to the Sanction Guidelines should be considered by adjudicators as only “aggravating factors” when considering an appropriate sanction for a FINRA violation.

The FINRA Sanction Guidelines don’t state specific sanctions for a particular violation. They now provide adjudicators with an additional “aggravating factor” to contemplate in determining the appropriate sanction.

The watchdog said that it was feedback from its Securities Helpline for Seniors that showed a pattern of concerns among senior citizens about brokers exploiting their financial accounts that caused them to take action “by putting in place the first uniform, national standards to protect senior investors.”

Reference: The National Law Review (Nov. 2, 2020) “National Adjudicatory Council Revises FINRA Sanction Guidelines”

Is Transferring House to Children a Good Idea?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate. However, gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy.

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim to give her son the house and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can expose you to their financial problems because their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, take some or most of its value. If the child divorces, the house could become an asset that must be divided as part of the marital estate.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let homeowners transfer their homes at death without probate.

Another option is a living trust, which can ensure that all assets avoid probate.

Many states also have simplified probate procedures for smaller estates.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”